Editor’s Note: The Review is proud to herein excerpt the title story of John Brandon’s new short story collection, Further Joy, released this month by McSweeney’s Publishing. Brandon is the author of three novels: Arkansas, Citrus County, and A Million Heavens. In addition, his work has appeared in Oxford American, GQ, Grantland, ESPN Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. He now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and teaches at Hamline University.
One girl locked her bedroom door after soccer games — the lost breath and slick tanned limbs, the push of opposition, the spiked shoes. One girl came within a week of perfect attendance and then to avoid recognition for the feat stayed home from school doing nothing, a bit lonesome, nibbling pastries and watching old high school movies full of outdated, luxurious clichés. One of the girls’ fathers owned a fast food joint that did wine pairings. One of the girls’ fathers did not trust his documents in the trash, even if shredded, and he saved them all up and conducted a backyard fire every few months, no matter how torrid the weather. The neighbors would complain but by the time someone from the county appeared the fire would be all but over, the sky hazed with secret finances. A few of the girls enjoyed the zoo, but they didn’t go there together. The zoo required a bus ride. The zoo was a place to be alone and not feel lonely. The girls did not imagine themselves old like their fathers; they imagined themselves as young adults in unknown gray cities, wearing coats that swallowed them up and coats snug to their figures, living in spare apartments nestled unknown distances above unknown streets. They imagined young men in loosened ties, with shy smiles and excellent manners. One of the girls locked her bedroom door after long days at the beach — the smell of the oil, the baking limbs again, the bare feet. The girls had what they considered a common-sense policy regarding marijuana: They would not purchase it but would accept it for free from people they knew, and only if another of the girls was present. The girls were fifteen. They lived in the middle class section of a town known for wealth, and went to a brand new high school where nothing was decided. The girls knew that their soccer coach was gay and resolved to keep his secret. He wore sunglasses and polo shirts like every other guy and spoke slowly and without accent like every other guy, but the girls knew. There was no charge when he touched their shoulders, no slight tension. At the end of practice when they got down to sports bras and chugged near the water cooler, spilling down their fronts, he could look at them with casual eyes and they felt no need to pose. One of the girls’ fathers worked at a nuclear power plant in the next county, and every morning he was out of the house before the girl awoke. The girls had little preference where they went to college. They would move away from home, but were not in a big rush about it. The girls hated to be asked what their talents were, their interests and strong points. The girls had at one time or another boycotted espresso, celebrity perfumes, movies that involved outer space, the Internet, the classics of literature, bikinis, appetizers, music featuring electric guitars. One of the girls’ fathers owned a restaurant named 6TABLE that served six parties per night, Thursday through Sunday. For a time, this girl had waited tables. One evening a lady had raised her voice at the girl and the girl’s father had thrown the lady out. Like most who ate there, the lady was rich and bored and so after being thrown out she had dedicated herself to making trouble for the restaurant. Reviews soured, the health inspector appeared repeatedly, an annual gala turned elsewhere for its catering needs. Eventually, and not because her father asked her to, the girl wrote a letter apologizing to the lady, and then showed up at her home and apologized in person. It was hard to know what to apologize for, but the girl managed, leaning on the dictum that the customer was always right. Boredom was the woman’s problem, the girl knew, not wealth. The poor grew bored too and labored at evil. None of the girls would ever run for a student government office. They didn’t despise student government as some did, but the idea of losing an election was sobering. They were thought of as free spirits and could do most anything, most anything — they couldn’t run for treasurer and lose. They couldn’t run for vice president of the student council and draw posters and distribute lollipops and give speeches and then fail to win the election and not reasonably expect to lose prestige in the eyes of the rest of the school. One of the girls, cold turkey, stopped locking her bedroom door. She wanted to save up the thrill, bottle it. She didn’t know if it worked this way, but maybe it did. One of the girls had once hated her freckles, and now was proud of them. She relished sitting under her parasol at the beach. It was glamorous, not being tan. It was original. She wore black, blushed and bruised. The girls’ fathers had stopped giving them actual gifts on their birthdays. Instead, each father would take his daughter and all the other girls to dinner. The girls missed the wrapped physical objects. They missed imagining their fathers wracking their brains, bumbling from store to store asking advice. The girls sometimes stayed up all Friday night making bracelets and then sold the bracelets the next day at the Saturday market. They were often given a stand next to a bunch of country boys who sold jerky. The boys were from out in the swamps but were not poor or stupid. They were cocky in a way that was fun rather than despicable. The girls could hardly understand their accents but they could talk about anything — hot rod engines, the local tax system, cities in Australia. If these boys pressed hard enough they could get somewhere with the girls, but they didn’t press. These boys took it as it came. And returning home from the market, the girls would find themselves full of a diffuse yet pulsing frustration. Their fathers, the girls noticed, never entered the girls’ bedrooms. The girls would come up the hallway and catch their fathers peering in if the door had been left open, looking skeptical yet fascinated, like nonbelievers peeking into a dim cathedral. One of the girls had been marginally fondled by a shoe salesman. No more than three or four years separated the girl and the shoe salesman, yet he’d been a different element. He had veined forearms and jaw muscles and an accent that didn’t come from the swamps but from some other lesser place. He’d been talking to her but then he stopped. Something lifeless and determined came into his eyes. The girl was the only customer in the store and had gotten her hair done that day and had gotten a pedicure. The shoe salesman had taken her bare feet in his hands in a way that was gentle but certain. The shoes sat in their box, impartial. He was only touching her ankles and toes, looking into her eyes, knowing all he needed back from her was nothing. And she gave it — a flat look, a look not only empty of protest but as determined as his. They felt like someone else’s feet; they felt like part of a beautiful woman who would never run out of stunts to pull. He let one of his hands wander quick to her hip and then the other hand caught up slowly, tracing its way up the skin of her other leg. When he had an equal grip, dug in close to the bone, the girl could feel very definitely that she was being possessed. When his fingertips ventured under the elastic of her underwear, she heard herself gasp. A bony, pinch-faced old lady came in then, toting a pert baggie that probably contained new sunglasses. The girl knew that if her father ever found out, he would hurt the shoe salesman. The shoe salesman was basically a man, but not like her father was a man. The shoe salesman didn’t have a daughter. The girl would never have been able to explain to her father that nothing had really happened, and that if anything had it was only because she’d wanted it to. That wouldn’t have been important. Each girl already appreciated her father. Each girl appreciated that her father was soft-spoken on the sidelines of soccer fields, that her father allowed her to try anything she wanted and allowed her to quit those things if she wanted to try something else. The very land, the streets of the neighborhood the girls lived in, possessed a flatness that often felt more than merely topographical. The girls recognized their home terrain instantly in photographs and movies. This literal lack of relief added an air of invincibility to the diffuse and pulsing frustration the girls often fell prey to.
One of the fathers followed a Mexican soap opera. The women were huge-eyed and single-minded, and the story would never end. It would outlive the father and maybe even his daughter.
To the fathers’ wonder, their daughters drank like thirty-five-year-old women — a glass of wine with dinner, a cold beer at the end of a long hot week. They ate whatever was presented, whatever was handy, with equal zest, whether braised veal or a frozen cheese pizza.
The fathers could not discern the status their daughters held among their peers. It did not seem to matter that they were not wealthy. It did not seem to matter one way or the other whether they played sports. They were free to earn high grades if they wished. Their daughters were a clique, but took no pride in this. Exclusivity and welcome occurred naturally and were accepted without fuss. It seemed nerds no longer existed as they once had, or sluts. There was peer pressure to do such things as recycle and volunteer.
Each father understood that he could not tell how attractive his daughter was. Each assumed his daughter was beautiful because she looked similar to the other girls she hung around with, who were without doubt beautiful.
The fathers did not pal around with one another.
One of the fathers’ daughters had a suitor, a white boy named Tyrone. The father did not know if the boy’s parents had named him for a joke or a statement or if somehow Tyrone was a family name for them or what.
One of the fathers was in debt. He’d sold his crepe shop but no one knew at how great a loss. Now he cooked at an upscale breakfast place, folding mushrooms and lobster into omelets. He didn’t know what people thought — that he’d gotten weary of the responsibility of owning, maybe, or that he wanted to stay in shape in the kitchen. He hadn’t allowed his daughter to notice he was broke. He took her out for sushi and then, on his days off, he ate peanut butter sandwiches alone. He had begun secretly rooting against his daughter’s impeccable grades, knowing everything would be easier for him if she didn’t get into a prestigious far-off school. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the local branch of the state school. Lots of bright kids went to the state school. He had sold things out of the back of his garage, exercise equipment and a stately, attic-smelling grandfather clock. He had sold his bottles of fine California red. He had never decided what occasion might prompt him to uncork one of the wines, what sort of joyous triumph he was waiting for, and now he’d never find out. Good things had happened and he’d let them pass, occasionally handling and dusting the bottles but never celebrating with them. His daughter was the sharpest of the girls. She was a math whiz and a shrewd judge of character. He could not stand the thought of her being disappointed in him, of letting her down.
One of the fathers’ daughters spoke four languages. Fluent Spanish, of course. Enough French to hold a conversation. Also, they had hosted a girl from Zimbabwe for several summers and the daughter had picked up enough of some African tongue to continue learning it on her own. The high school had brought in a tutor for her, a linguist from the university. Though public, it was that kind of high school.
One of the fathers, years ago, had bought his daughter a boxy antique camera. Later he found it in a spare closet and tracked down film for it on the computer and used it to take pictures of the stagnant canals that snaked through their part of town. He tried to catch the canals at low tide, when clans of exposed crabs lined the oyster beds.
The fathers depended on their daughters to keep them in the correct shoes.
When in doubt, the fathers encouraged their daughters to get enough rest and eat vegetables and to tell the truth — timeless, tried-and-true directives.
The fathers were aware of how far things were going in some quarters. It wasn’t just nose jobs and breast augmentation anymore. Girls were getting their lips plumped. Girls were having their toes worked on, so their feet would look cute in sandals and flip-flops. None of the fathers’ daughters had mentioned any of this nonsense yet, but that didn’t mean they never would.
One of the fathers hired an escort every few months, an available reward to himself for how far he’d risen in life, and against what odds. The older his daughter got, the less purely he was able to enjoy this practice.
The era the girls were growing up in had no texture. The music betrayed nothing. The generation preceding the fathers’ had been wild, and the fathers themselves had learned to be jaded, but the girls were past all that. Jadedness, for them, was an old stale religion not worth its costumes. Rebellion, to them, was quaint.
One of the fathers thought of the afternoon his daughter’s braces had been removed as the moment he’d lost her.
One of the fathers wished he could work on cars. He wished he could prop his hood in the driveway and hang that competent and hopeful lantern and take a look at a belt or hose and then straighten up to his full height while wiping his hands on a torn green rag. Men like himself, driving by on the street, would notice him and feel lost.
One of the fathers thought of one of his daughter’s friends while he lay awake at night. He thought of her during slow moments in the day, too, but in the day he only felt fond of the way she walked and the way she carefully formed words with her lips. At night it was something worse. He didn’t think in terms of being in love. He had, apparently, been in love twice before. He knew there was no dependable advantage, when smitten, to doing something about it. There were numerous disadvantages. The father had never been addicted to anything, had never been unable to control himself. He would weather this, just another secret to keep. In so many ways, he was lucky. His daughter was lucky. Her friend, with her feline face and muscled calves and shabby fingernails, was lucky — lucky to be desired by a man who did not act on his wanton fixations. When the father picked all the girls up from somewhere in his restored classic Jeep, he hoped the girl he thought about at night would sit in the passenger seat. He had no way to encourage this. When it happened, when she hopped up beside him and the rest piled in back, he felt overcome, dizzy, like he’d had whisky and a rich dessert. Her teeth were gleaming and slightly crooked and her skin was the color of honey when the sunlight shines through it. On the inside of her ankle, a pale beauty mark in the shape of a tropical fish. Her tummy sometimes peeked out. There were the soft depressions behind her ears. She regarded the father with formality yet comfort. There was no chance she understood him, but she trusted him. When she was in the front seat she didn’t lean back toward the others to join the gabbing. She listened, an amused outsider, same as the father. He wondered what she would do if she ever noticed how he looked at her, but she would never notice. Or she already had. This was the father’s problem alone, not the girl’s. It was best to keep his visions plain and present, but the nights were soundless and aimless and in the dark he would imagine the two of them living on a meadowy ranch out west or holing up down in Central America, local children running into town to fetch them produce and rum. He imagined teaching the girl how to cook, imagined going on weekend excursions for the purpose of buying hats. He even imagined scolding her coarse etiquette, imagined her taking up cigarettes. They would buy a horse. They would read the longest novels ever written. He imagined her coming down with a swift and exotic illness, and nursing her back to health, giving her medicines with his palm cupped underneath a spoon, placing cold rags on her forehead, leading her on leisurely walks over mild hills until the gold color returned to her limbs. He imagined her desire returning as she became hale. He wouldn’t rush her, he would wait until they were lying about on a humid porch during the hottest part of the day and she sighed and pushed the tiny soft arch of her foot into his hand. He even allowed himself to imagine the fallout. His own daughter’s injury. The other father’s rage. A fistfight. The law. The shame. Except that nothing was going to happen. He was unfamiliar with the abandon that caused people to commit murder or rape or break into houses over a fix, that made gamblers end up homeless, that caused old ladies to hoard knickknacks and canned goods and small pets until their houses were condemned, that turned the upbeat chubby into the grotesque obese who couldn’t leave their apartments, that got men fired from office jobs over the contents of their hard drives. No, his mind was like his lawn; he let it grow unruly only for the neat joy of trudging out into the heat and mowing and clipping and raking. He had seen the girl in sundresses. He had seen her in men’s-style pajamas. He had seen her in a soccer uniform. He had seen her in a thin, stiff coat and high boots. He had seen her in a faded clay-colored towel almost the same shade as her skin. He had seen her in a ball gown and in a middle school graduation gown. He had seen her in a beat-up sweatshirt, eager to paint houses for the less fortunate.
The fathers knew it was important to have meals with their daughters. For one, breakfast was convenient. For another, dinner. One of the fathers regularly picked his daughter up from school and took her for salads in the quaint town center of their neighborhood. One of the fathers was only free on Sundays and he took his daughter to brunch on the water, and he’d recently begun to feel, sitting there just the two of them in the midst of so many hungover, sated couples and sprawling wedding parties, oyster shells and champagne everywhere, that something was not quite natural about his and his daughter’s lingering over this sunny midmorning luxury, that this familiar indulgence had curdled.
The fathers remembered themselves lovingly as children, many years younger than their daughters were now, that first summer they were allowed to walk down to the old pier without any adults and fish an afternoon away. They remembered the storm beginning to assemble on the horizon as they pulled lunch out of a plastic grocery bag — a sandwich of whatever pastrami had been left after their father’s work week, a peach, a warm can of ginger ale. They remembered taking their shoes off and setting them in an out-of-the-way spot where they wouldn’t get knocked down into the swells. They remembered getting their bait stolen by pinfish, getting their lines tangled. They remembered the clouds rising, advancing, snuffing out the sun. They remembered pointing at the lightning in the distance, and tasting a metallic tang on the breeze. Soon everyone else on the pier began reeling in and packing up and shuffling toward land, throwing in the towel — first the young professionals on a day off, wearing bright ball caps and expensive deck shoes, then those women of indeterminate age that had always frightened and interested the fathers when they were boys, with their platinum hair and harsh laughs and sculpted manly arms, and finally the pier hounds, their moustaches unkempt and shorts ratty, who fished for their dinners most days. The storm had been racing in, aimed directly at the pier, and then it seemed to hold itself in place a moment, offering a fair chance to anyone who’d not yet fled. The fathers found their shoes then. They remembered the sky growing dark as night, the thunder now seeming to come from beneath them. That was when the snook finally started hitting, forced landward by the storm. They remembered throwing the wriggly creatures back, a third and a fourth, and slicing a finger while dislodging a hook, and knowing that this moment, with fish caught and with the line up and with blood dripping onto the planks of the pier and the lightning close enough to blind them, was when they should run for cover. But they didn’t run. Something inside them wanted this danger. If the storm washed them off the pier, they would drown. The lightning could fry them crisp. Yet they baited and dropped the hook once again. They remembered being fascinated at being alone, remembered turning and looking back at the beach, which was abandoned and which seemed itself to be bracing for a siege. They remembered the first fat drops of rain hitting the backs of their hands. The angry front was now hanging over them like a cliff. They remembered not being able to account for their stubbornness, not understanding why the thing that ought to chase them off was holding them still. The gusts rocking the pier. The surf pounding the pilings below. The fathers were destined to survive this pointless youthful bravery and live their lives and have children of their own, were destined to pray, knowing it couldn’t be so, that whatever fates their daughters were testing were as wholesome as rough weather.